|EQI.org Home | Daniel Goleman
with Ram Dass
David: I see
that you have Bob Dole on your altar. That's a nice
Ram Dass: I take the person who most closes my heart and
I watch my heart close as I look at their picture.
David: What was it that originally inspired your interest
in the evolution of human consciousness?
Ram Dass: I'm inclined to immediately respond -
mushrooms, which I took in March 1961, but that was just
the beginning feed-in to a series of nets. Once my
consciousness started to go all over the place, I had to
start thinking it through in order to understand what was
happening to me. It wasn't until after I'd been around
Tim Leary, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, that I started
to reflect about issues like the evolution of
David: Was there a common denominator between what drew
you to study psychology and what drew you to spiritual
Ram Dass: I am embarrassed to admit what drew me to
psychology. I didn't want to go to medical school. I was
getting good grades in psychology and I was charismatic
and people in the psychology department liked me. It was
as low a level as that. My whole academic career was
totally out of Jewish anxiety, and issues surrounding
achievement and adequacy. It was totally socio-political.
It had nothing to do with intellectual content at all.
David: You talk about that time in your life as if it was
a period of simple bad judgment, but wasn't it also a
necessary part of your evolution?
Ram Dass: Well, that's different. I was, after all,
teaching Freudian theory. Human motivation was my
specialty, so I thought a lot about all that stuff. That
served me in very good stead because it's an exquisitely
articulated sub-system. If you stay in that sub-system,
it's very finite and not very nourishing. But when you
have a meta-system, and then there's the sub-system
within it, then it's beautiful, it's like a jewel - just
like with chemistry or physics.
But when I was in it, it was real. When I was a Freudian,
all I saw were psycho-sexual stages of development, and
as a behaviorist all I saw were people as empty boxes.
Rebecca: You seem to be able to incorporate and apply
some of the things you learned as a psychologist to this
larger understanding of the human condition.
Ram Dass: Everything I learned has, within that relative
system, validity. So, if somebody comes to me with a
problem, they come to me living within that psychological
context. I have incredible empathy for their perception
of reality, partly because of what I've been through in
it. You've got to go into the sub-system to be with the
person within it, and then create an environment for them
to come out of it if they want to. That seems to me to be
a model role for a therapist.
It's also showed me a certain kind of arrogance in
Western science. Here was Western science really ignoring
the essence of what human existence was about and
presenting it as if concerns about that were some kind of
When I was in psychology we were getting correlations of
50 on personality variables which was very good - you are
accounting for 25% of the variance. But that means that
at least 75% was error. It could have been anything! So,
it left plenty of space. At the time we really thought we
had the theory down cold, but I realize now how hungry I
was in that situation.
Rebecca: To fill in that space.
Ram Dass: Yes. I think that everything I went into or
was, gives me a legitimacy with people in that field. The
whole game of communicating dharma is metaphor - and, in
a way, I can talk the metaphor of this culture.
David: Would you say then, that someone who has
demonstrated a high degree of success at playing
society's games, becomes a more credible spiritual voice
and gains more respect?
Ram Dass: Well, it depends on who the respect is from.
There are people who respect me because I was at Harvard
and Stanford, and then there are people who respect me
because I left Harvard and Stanford, or I was thrown out
of Harvard - even better.(laughter)
What's fun is that I went from being a really good guy in
the society to becoming a bad guy, to then becoming a
good guy again. It's fascinating to play with these kinds
of energies. When you're playing on the leading edge,
it's like surfing. There's a big wave which pushes a
little wave in front of it. The little wave is the
exciting one because hardly anyone is on it, and everyone
thinks you're nuts. The meeting at Harvard where I got
found out was extraordinary. It was a moment where I knew
I had left my supply wagon far behind. I was called into
the office beforehand by the heads of the department and
they said, "we can't protect Tim, but we can protect
you - if you shut up."
Then, in the meeting, all our colleagues got up and
attacked us: our research, our design, our data -
everything. They saw it as defending the department
against a cult that was in danger of taking it over,
because out of fifteen graduate students, twelve wanted
to do only psychedelic research.(laughter)
So, when they had all finished attacking us Tim was
stunned, because he had had the feeling of everything
being wonderful, of loving everybody and everybody loving
him. So, I got up and I said, "I would like to
answer on our behalf."
I looked at the chairman of the department and he gave me
a look like, well, you've made the choice. And I had,
because I realized that I could not have lived with the
hypocrisy that would have been demanded of me otherwise.
The feeling I had was that I was home. It was so familiar
and so right that I couldn't leave it.
But then when I became the good guy again, I find myself
riding the bigger wave. I can make a lot of money now,
people love me. It's playing with a different power but
it's not as much fun as being on the little wave.
David: How has your experience with psychedelics shaped
your quest for higher awareness?
Ram Dass: It had no effect on me whatsoever and nobody
should use it! (laughter) The predicament about history
is that you keep rewriting the history. I'm not sure, as
I look back, whether what appeared to be critical events
are really as critical as I thought they were, because a
lot of people took psychedelics and didn't have the
reaction I had. That had something to do with everything
that went before that moment. In a way I just see it as
another event, but I can say that taking psychedelics and
meeting my guru were the two most profound experiences in
Psychedelics helped me to escape - albeit momentarily -
from the prison of my mind. It over-rode the habit
patterns of thought and I was able to taste innocence
again. Looking at sensations freshly without the
conceptual overly was very profound.
Rebecca: Do you think you would have gotten to that point
anyway, because of the path you were following?
Ram Dass: I don't know, but the probabilities are against
it because I was being rewarded so much by the society to
stay in the game I was in. I had all the keys to the
kingdom; a tenured professorship at Harvard, a pension
plan, etc. When I look at my colleagues as a control
group, the ones who took acid aren't in the game, the
ones who took acid are. It's as simple as that.
(Insert) Rebecca: You could look at that and say that it
wasn't necessarily psychedelics that was the deciding
factor, but that the prescence of certain qualities
already existent in those people determined whether they
took acid or not - qualities such as courage,
imagination, ability to question the status quo etc.
.David: How did you then make the transition from Dr
Richard Alpert to Ram Dass?
Ram Dass: Well, initially it was all very confusing. I
was teaching a course in human motivation. I took my
first psilocybin on Friday night, and by Monday morning I
was lecturing on stuff which was basically lies as far as
I was concerned.(laughter) So, that was wierd because my
whole game started to disintegrate at that point.
I still stayed as Mr Psychedelic Junior in relation to
Tim, and publicly my gig was turning on rich people and
dealing and giving lectures on the psychedelic
experience. By 1966, I looked around and saw that
everybody who was using psychedelics really wasn't going
anywhere. I was around the best of them, but even if they
had the Eastern models, they couldn't wear them - the
suit didn't fit. I realized that we just didn't know
enough. We had the maps but we couldn't read them.
Then I went to India in the hope that I could meet
somebody there who could read the maps. I met Neem Karoli
Baba and he gave me the name Ram Dass, and that put it in
a bigger context than the drugs. The experience wasn't
any greater than the drug experience, but the social
context of it was entirely changed. Neem Karoli took acid
and said that it was known about for thousands of years
in the Kulu Valley but that nobody knew how to use them
any more. I said, "should I take it again?" He
said, "it will allow you to come in and have the
Darshan of Christ. You can only stay two hours. It would
be better to become Christ than visit it, but your
medicine won't do that."
I thought that was pretty insightful. LSD showed you an
analog of the thing itself but something in the way we
were using it couldn't bring us to the thing itself.
Rebecca: Acid seems to temporarily push the neurosis out
of the way away, like moving through a crowd into the
space of the innocence you mentioned earlier. When the
drug wears off and the crowds of neurosis swarm around us
again, have you really dealt with anything?
Ram Dass: But the way the neuroses comes back is
different. The way I talk about it in my lectures is that
they go from being these huge monsters that possess you,
to these little schmoos that come by for tea.(laughter) I
have every neurosis that I ever had. I haven't gotten rid
of a single one!
Rebecca: Many people experience a kind of existential
guilt because they find that they can't live up to the
inner potential they've seen during the psychedelic
Ram Dass: I've had all of that! I've had all the bad
trips, all the guilt and anxiety and psychosis. In my
lectures I sometimes say, "I've had hundreds of drug
sessions, and a lot of people say that someone who has
done that is basically psychotic. I have no idea whether
I am a psychotic or not, because a psychotic would be the
last to know, right? All I can say is that you paid to
hear me." (laughter)
Rebecca: Do you see Richard Alpert and Ram Dass as two
separate entities or more like siamese twins?
Ram Dass: I've been through different stages. There was a
stage where I had to push away Richard Alpert to become
Ram Dass. I saw Richard Alpert as a real drag and then I
saw him as poignant. If Ram Dass came into Richard
Alpert's office, Richard Alpert would have hospitalized
him. I would have seen myself as very pathological and
Rebecca: What would the diagnosis have been?
Ram Dass: Oh, Schizophrenia. Psychologists don't have the
distinction between vertical schizophrenia and horizontal
schizophrenia, and they would see a number of different
identities in me. Once, Tim and I went to New York to do
an all night radio show. We split a sugar cube of acid,
but it turned out that most of the acid was on my
We got to a party at Van Wolf's house and there was a
woman sketching people on the wall. She had already done
Allen Ginsberg and Tim, and she asked if she could do me,
and I agreed. I stood there and I thought, `I'm a young
man looking into the future.' I had to be somebody. She
sketched me. Then I got bored with that and I thought,
`I'm really her lover.'
I didn't change any facial expressions, I just thought
the thought. And she erased what she had done. Then I
thought, `I'm actually just an old wise being.' She
erased it again and finally she said, "I can't do
your face, it's just so liquid."
I'm not yet evolved enough so that Richard Alpert and Ram
Dass are one. When somebody calls me Richard, I wince a
little bit because I'm still holding on to wanting to be
Ram Dass. Ram Dass represents that deep place in my
being. Richard Alpert never represented that to me.
Rebecca: You're ready to put Bob Dole on your altar but
not Richard Alpert?
Ram Dass: (laughter) No. I'm not ready for that yet.
David: What is your concept of God?
Ram Dass: (long pause) I think it's a word like a finger
pointing to the moon. I don't think that what it points
to is describable. It is pointing to that which is beyond
form that manifests through form. `A God defined is a God
confined.' I can give you thousands of poetic little
descriptions. It's all, everything and nothing - it's all
the things that the Heart Sutra talks about. It's God at
play with itself. God is the One, but the fact is that
the concept of the One comes from two, and when you're in
the One, there's no One - it's zero, which equals one at
Rebecca: What is your experience of God?
Ram Dass: Presence - but not a dualistic presence. The
dance goes from realizing that you're separate (which is
the awakening) to then trying to find your way back into
the totality of which you are not only a part, but which
you are. It's like holography. You are the whole thing
and you go through stages of approaching that
Like my relationship with my guru. First I had the person
and then he died. Then I had the pictures and the
stories, and I got bored with that. Then there was the
feelings of the qualities of his being: humor, rascality,
sternness. And then there was just presence. And then,
there was just this feeling of being. Not even the
experience of a presence.
That's the quality of emptiness, even emptiness of the
concept of something. The Chinese patriarch says, even to
be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray.
It's that moment when all of the dualism just keeps
falling away and falling away.
Rebecca: When you talk about God it's seen as your job so
it's okay, but when others mention the G word, the
response is usually either pity or embarrassment.
Ram Dass: Because it's been pre-empted by third chakra
power trippers. They're using God in contexts like `my
God' or `the God' or `unless you believe in God...' or
`do you believe in God?' It's power in both directions
and it's the reductionistic nature of the way the mind
works. What the word God means is the mystery really.
It's the mystery that we face as humans. The mystery of
existence, of suffering and of death.
The question is: What is your relationship to the
mystery? Are you defending yourself from it? Are you
making love to it? Are you living in it? These are all
different stages of the process.
Rebecca: How can people speak about God without getting
into these sticky areas?
Ram Dass: I think the word God is going to have to be put
to rest for a while. I'm using it less and less. I've
been trying a different thing now and I've been saying to
people in my workshops, "I challenge you all within
a year to be living on two planes of consciousness
simultaneously." They said, "which two?" I
say, "any two." (laughter) That's not talking
about spirit, it's not talking about God, but it's doing
exactly the same thing - it's shifting paradigm and
David: Your guru was an extremely significant figure in
your life. Could you describe what you have carried with
you as a result of your relationship with him?
Ram Dass: He is the most important separate consciousness
in my life, even though he died in 1973. He's more real
than anybody else I deal with. It's like having an
imaginary playmate that is so hip and so wise and so cool
and so empty and so doesn't give a fuck and so loving and
so compassionate - so any way you can go. It's such fun.
He is the closest I've ever come to finding unconditional
love. He didn't even want to stay alive. Most people you
meet might say, "I'm an unconditional lover,"
but you go to kill them and they go, "nooo!"
But it's not him, he's just the form of it. Once,
Maharaji was warning this girl off this dubious guy she
had met. She said, "he's only my friend" and
Maharaji said, "your only friend is God." I
really heard that. Your only friend is the reflection of
the mystery in each form. And that's what you want to be
friends with - not with the story-line.
Rebecca: Do you feel that you're coming even closer to
him as time goes on?
Ram Dass: Yeah. When I think of who he was - this giant
of a being - the idea that I could be him is such
chutzpah that I can't even entertain it in my mind. But I
can see that as fast as I can, I'm dying into him. The
heat is being turned up so fast and I'm aware of it. If
you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but if
you put it in cold water you can boil it and it won't
move. I'm aware of the heat being turned up, but I don't
want to jump out.(laughter)
Rebecca: A lot of Westerners have a hard time
understanding the guru/devotee relationship. Could you
describe this relationship as you understand it?
Ram Dass: Ramana Mahashi said, "God, guru and Self
are one and the same thing." The real guru is not
anybody busy being somebody. If you asked Maharaji if he
was a guru he would say, "I don't know anything, god
knows everything." The guru is a door-frame. You
don't worship the door-frame, you're trying to go through
the door. It's like that saying about, if you meet the
Buddha on the road, slay him.
You don't owe the guru anything but your own liberation
because that's the only way you come into the guru. What
the guru does, as far as I can see, is mirror for you
where you aren't. The guru shows you all your neuroses
writ large, because there's nothing you can project into
the guru. You keep trying to make him into somebody like
you, but he isn't because he doesn't want anything - and
you still want something.
That understanding can come through books or on the
astral plane - it doesn't have to come through a physical
guru. But once you've tasted this stuff you can get very
attached to your method of getting there. Many people who
get closest to God through sex, get very addicted to sex.
They get attached to the method rather than to what the
method is for.
The guru is just another method, and it's a trap. But you
have to get trapped for it to work and then you just hope
it ejects. If the guru isn't pure they won't let you
eject, they won't let you go. You'll know in your
intuitive heart that you're being had, but you might not
want to admit it.
Rebecca: Again there's that Western suspicion because of
the history of power-tripping gurus.
Ram Dass: Right. The true guru doesn't want any worldly
power - it's a joke to them.
Rebecca: Did you find yourself testing your guru a lot in
Ram Dass: He so overwhelmed me with his first gambit that
there wasn't any way that I could test him any more. He
just did it to me so thoroughly that there couldn't be a
question. He could have gone in there with a shovel but
he went in with a bulldozer! (laughter)
I was coming up a hillside and I saw him sitting under a
tree with eight or ten devotees around him. I'm standing
at a distance and the guy who is with me is on his face
touching this his feet, and I'm thinking, "I'm not
going to do that."
Neem Karoli Baba looked up at me and said, "you came
in a big car?" We had come in a friend's Land Rover
that we had borrowed so this guy could come and see his
guru to get his visa. So I said, "yes." And
then he said, "you will give it to me?" Now,
coming from Jewish charities as I do, I had been hustled,
but never like this! I was speechless. The guy I was with
leans up and says, "if you want it Maharaji, it's
yours." I protested and said, "you can't give
David's car away!" I was aware of everybody laughing
at me, but I was very serious. (laughter)
Then Neem Karoli said, "take them and feed
them." So we were taken down to the temple and fed
lunch. Then he called me back up and he told me to sit
down. He looked at me and said, "you were out under
the stars last night," Then he said, "you were
thinking about your mother." My mind started to get
agitated and I started to entertain hypotheses as to how
he could have known that. Then he said, "she died
last year," and the dis-ease kept growing. Then he
said, "she got very big in the belly before she
died." My mother had died of an enlarged spleen. And
then he closed his eyes and he rocked back and forth and
he opened his eyes and looked at me, and in English he
When he said that, my mind just couldn't handle it. I
just gave up. Something shifted and I started to feel a
wrenching pain in my chest. There was a radio show on
many years ago called Inner Sanctum and they opened this
screeching door at the beginning of every show. I felt
like this door that had been long closed was being
violently forced open. I started to cry and I cried for
two days. And after that, all I wanted to do was touch
I had recognized that not only was he inside my head, but
that everything I was, he loved. There was not a part of
me that he didn't know, and he still loved me. So, all
the models of `if they only knew that little thought that
I don't even admit to myself, they wouldn't love me,'
This wasn't an intellectual process. It was a direct
experience of that quality of unconditional love. It took
that long (snaps his fingers) and all the rest of it has
been basically irrelevant. I cherish everything that came
after and I got all kinds of teachings, but the thing
happened at that moment. He didn't do anything, he just
was it. He was an environment where my ripeness to open
had a chance to express itself.
Rebecca: Did you get a lot of flack from your peers and
friends when you came back to the United States from
Ram Dass: Well, I came back wearing a dress, I was
barefoot, I had long hair, a long beard and beads. I
wouldn't have noticed flack if it had hit me in the
David: What was Timothy Leary's reaction?
Ram Dass: I don't remember precisely. Tim and I weren't
very close during that period of time. He had been to
India just a few years before I had, so he understood the
context from which I was speaking. When we started to
come back together again, we had by then gone in such
different directions that there were certain topics that
we kind of agreed not to deal with.
Tim is a little bit of a mystery to me. He seemed
fascinated by the conceptual play around the psychedelic
experience, while I was much more about dying into
emptiness. But I didn't have a vested interest in being
an intellectual or a scholar. Tim goes out of conceptual
space obviously, you only have to read Psychedelic
Prayers, but the venue that he wants to hang out in, is
the conceptual mind. That isn't my domain.
Kalu Rinpoche, who is an incredible Tibetan lama, said,
"Ram Dass, you have three things to do in this life:
honor your guru, deepen your emptiness and deepen you
compasssion." And that's just what it feels like to
me. I live a lot with mystery. Tim sees mystery as a
challenge. I see it as a delightful place to play, so,
when somebody tells me they have just solved a mystery, I
am only passingly interested.
Rebecca: That's a classic East-West dynamic.
Ram Dass: Very much so. I spent many years being very
defensive about the fact that I was not schooled in
Western metaphysics and philosophy, but it left a blank
slate on which I could write when I went to the East.
Then I came back and I could view Western philosophy from
I see this role of mediating between the East and West as
a delicious dance. I went Western and then I pushed West
away to embrace East. Then I came back like a virgin
afraid of the West, and then slowly over the years stuck
my toe in again. I shaved the beard, put on the pants,
got the credit card and the MG and a house in Marin, and
oh my God what happened! (laughter) It's like being in
the world and not of it. It has to come at a point where
it's not scaring you or trapping you. It's empty form.
Rebecca: You've compared the process of persistent
self-analysis to playing with one's feces. Where do you
think self-analysis can take us, and what are its
Ram Dass: It depends on your intention in having fecal
play. It can be as a practice of mindfulness - in order
to find a place of witnessing and seeing it for what it
is. Then there is being in the drama and self-analysis
can be just a way of exacerbating the drama and making
your identity in the storyline more real.
Unfortunately this characterizes most of the dialogues
between therapists and patients. Everybody is so caught
in the stuff that they are just reinforcing caughtness
even as they are trying to get you out of it. It's like
rearranging furniture in the prison cell rather than
trying to get out of prison.
But as an exercise in mindfulness, self-analysis can be
very useful. It can help you to deal with the phenomena
of your life as they rise. You notice them and the
noticing gets stronger and stronger until you're not
going into them so much. That's a stage, because you're
still distant from them and then you have to come back in
until you're in them and not in them at the same moment.
I think the fallacy is that if you're standing in one
place, you can't be standing somewhere else. I think that
freedom is being conscious on all levels simultaneously.
Freedom is not standing anywhere. You have no
perspective, and then you just adopt a perspective for a
functional situation. The situation brings you into
perspective at that moment, but you're not resting in
perspective. Is that clear?
David: Yes..... it's just difficult to do.
Ram Dass: Well, as long as you think you're doing it -
that's a place. (laughter) That was the beauty of Trungpa
Rinpoche, a wonderful Tibetan lama, he sat down and said,
"I want to show you a new form of meditation, let's
do it together." We sat down looking at one another
and after a while he said, "Ram Dass, are you
trying?" and I said, "yes, I'm trying,"
and he said, "don't try - just do it."
Rebecca: You speak about operating from the point of view
of God's instrument, but isn't there a risk of becoming
self-righteous with that perspective and thinking,
"well, I'm an instrument of God and God is never
wrong, therefore I am never wrong," and losing the
self-consciousness required to keep one's ego in check?
Ram Dass: I think that if your intention is freedom, then
you will get caught in that, but you won't stay in it.
You'll get caught in `I represent the Godfather so don't
screw around with me,' and then you'll see that that's a
horrible place to be standing in. That's ego.
The mechanism that corrects you is not even the grossness
of that conceptual understanding. It's almost a vibratory
thing. You feel a thickness or a heaviness and you just
know that you're caught. You don't even know how you're
caught - you don't know whether it's lust or anger or
fear, and you don't even give a damn which one it is, you
just start your mechanisms to remember, to bring your
consciousness out of sticking in a place. You can be
stuck anywhere, in `I am God' or `I am empty'.
I've lost it thousands of times, and what I've done is
surround myself as best I can with people who bust me.
When I get caught I can get very resistant to admitting
that I'm caught. It's the use of one thing in the service
of something else. I kid about it and say, "wouldn't
you like to come up and see my holy pictures?" My
guru put it very succinctly, he said "siddhis
(spiritual powers) are pigshit." (laughter)
Rebecca: Do you still find yourself getting caught on
Ram Dass: You have to want something a little bit, but
the wanting is really going down a lot.
Rebecca: What is karma?
Ram Dass: Karma is another way of saying that everything
is related to everything else in the universe in a lawful
way - future, past and present. A limited interpretation
of karma has to do with looking from the past to the
future, but actually it's all inter-related. You just
feel the unfolding of the process of interaction leading
to a certain moment.
If you chart it you can plot it somewhat and see that
this came from there in a series of cause and effect, but
actually it's not linear at all. You are already
enlightened, so you are actually going from where you
started back to where you started. You're nowhere because
nothing happened and in that moment you realize it -
They say that when a being becomes free, all that is left
in form is old karma running off. When you do an act with
intention, it's like a pebble dropping in a pond. It
creates waves - it's an action. When you become no longer
identified with that which has motives, (they are there
but you're not identified with them, you're just
awareness) then you're not creating new karma. When the
old karma runs off - you aren't. That's what a being that
finishes is. You run out of karma.
In other words, in the course of things with everything
interacting with everything else, you just cease to exist
as a separate thing. It's still everything, because you
were everything already. Nothing happened to you, if
there is a you.(laughter)
Rebecca: The concept of personal karma is becoming more
and more popular, but it's often seen as a justification
non-intervention in the sense of; I have my karma and
that homeless person asking me for a quarter has his
karma, and who am I to intervene with anybody else's
Ram Dass: His karma is that you have that karma - your
karma is not intervening. He stays hungry, so that's his
karma. Everybody is everybody else's karma. The fact that
you saw the homeless person is part of your karma and
it's having an effect on you all the time. You are my
karma and I am yours at this moment.
It's so profoundly subtle because who I see you to be is
a projection of my karma. The way karma manifests is in
desire systems. If I don't have any attachments at all,
what I see is something entirely different. To see
symmetry, to see familiarity, to see warmth when I look
at you, I'm having to do all this stuff with my mind. Who
you really are, I have no idea - until I have no karma.
David: It sounds as if it's all so organized that there
is little room for free will.
Ram Dass: I've been grappling with the concept of free
will for a long time, and this is what I've come up with.
To the extent that we are in form (and that includes
thought) we have no freedom, because of the nature of
karma, of everything being lawfully related to everything
else. So then when somebody says free choice, does that
mean anything? Who has choice?
I can think I have choice. I can say, "I'm going to
go to the movies tonight," but if you knew enough
about me and if you could handle a multi-variable
approach, you could predict that I would say that. If you
knew enough about my gene structure and the shape of my
hands and my father's behavior, you could predict my
position in the chair at this moment. So where is the
free will? The fact is, that only when you aren't anybody
do you have free will.
Rebecca: So you're saying that you only really have
free-will at the point where the concept of free-will is
meaningless - when you no longer even have the desire to
have free will.
Ram Dass: Right. When you want something, you see only
the manifestation of the outward container. God is free,
or the formless is free, or non-dualism is free.
Awareness has no form and so you as awareness are free
basically, but every way it manifests through form is
itself within law. One of the things I got from Maharaji
was a sense of his seeing the universe as just law
unfolding. There is nothing personal about it, it's just
And he was offering to meet me behind it, where we are
free. I couldn't handle the fact that he understood the
nature of suffering and I learned that the line that
goes, `out of emptiness arises compassion' has that
mystery right in it. You'd better be empty of intention
and desire. The Tao says `the truth waits for eyes
unclouded by longing.'
David: So are you saying then that being embodied in form
means that everything is predetermined?
Ram Dass: No, it's not predetermination. Everything is
related to the future and past - what's pre?
Rebecca: Be here now.(laughter)
Ram Dass: (laughter) When somebody says to me,
"don't I have free will?" I say, "it
depends on who the `I' is. Most likely if you think you
are somebody who could have free will, then you
don't." You are free will, but you don't have free
will. So, if I'm facing a choice, I always know I'm
standing in the wrong place. Mostly nowadays I'm watching
my life to see how it came out, rather than what to do
Rebecca: Isn't there some creative quality? Aren't you
given a riff on which you can them improvise?
Ram Dass: Yeah, but the improvisation isn't really
creative. It's creativity the way we think about it,
because it surprises us, but it's still lawful.
(Insert) Rebecca: How do you explain in karmic terms why,
once you have set yourself upon a path to the absolute,
signposts and guides seem to appear out of nowhere?
David: Could you share with us the experience you had
swimming with John Lilly's dolphins?
Ram Dass: (long pause) I went with my friend to Redwood
City, Marineworld because I had been invited by John and
Toni Lilly to swim with Joe and Rosie. It was a cold,
grey day. I stood on the edge of the tank and I thought,
"I'm too old for this. I don't want to swim with the
dolphins anyway!" (laughter) The problem was that
everyone was standing around watching to see what Ram
Dass would do with the dolphins. It was a real drag.
So I get into the water, and as the dolphins go by me I
realize that they're much bigger than I thought they
would be - and I could feel their power. Then one of
them, Rosie, began just hovering right next to me, so I
reached out to touch her. Now in my model, if it's got a
tail it's a fish, and when you touch fish they go away -
but she didn't go away. Then I ran my hand down her back.
It was the silkiest thing I had ever touched. It was like
water with form. A thrill went through me. Still she
Suddenly I realized that she had opened to the contact.
The recognition that her consciousness was right there,
allowing me to do that, did the same thing to me as
Maharaji's "spleen" (of course, my mind is much
more blowable by this time - I'm ready to remember.) Up
until then I'd been thinking, what am I supposed to do
with the dolphin? But while I was touching her, I gave up
and my heart just opened.
When that happened, she flipped until she was upright
right in front of me. My heart was so open that I leaned
forward and kissed her on the mouth. Unstead of pulling
back, she started insinuating her body into mine. I was
going into ecstasy, I was saying, "oh Rosie, oh
Rosie," (laughter) and I started to get an erection.
Then the thought occurred to me, "is this
legal?" And all the time I'm smiling and everyone is
watching to see what Ram Dass is doing with the
Then she swam around and came in under my arm, and I
thought I'd really like to swim with her. I grabbed her
dorsal fin and she went down and my hand slipped off the
fin, so she came back and I grabbed it again. I didn't
want to grab it too hard because I didn't want to hurt
her. She went down and it slipped off again, and she kept
coming back under my arm. So I thought, what I really
want to do is to hold her underneath the stomach, so I
grabbed a fin and I held her.
She went down and she was very active so I thought, I
must be bugging her so I let go and I came to the surface
and she came right in underneath my arm again. So I
grabbed her and held on and we started to go wild through
the tank. It was just incredible! I got to the point
where my breath started to give out and I thought, Rosie,
this is lovely, but I'm one of the those other creatures!
And with that thought, she immediately came to the
surface while I got a breath and we went back down. This
went on several times.
Once we came up and people were taking photographs. I got
to hamming for the camera and I forgot to take a breath
and she went down. I thought, this is where we part
company Rosie, and she came right up so I could get air.
Then I started to get so cold that I was blue and
shaking. She pulled away from me and went and got Joe and
they both nosed me over to the platform and out of the
David: How wonderful! Have you ever had an experience
that you would label an extra-terrestial contact?
Ram Dass: No. I assume there are lots of beings on every
plane all around the place, but I myself have not had
experiences of that kind. By extra-terrestial do you mean
beings on the physical plane like other beings in the
David: Not necessarily. A lot of people have used the
term extra-terrestrial in the context of a psychedelic
experience where they've encountered entities that they
feel have evolved from somewhere else either from another
planet or plane.
Ram Dass: I've met many beings on other planes but I
don't call them extra-terrestrial. Maharaji is not on
this plane any more - but he's there. He's present as a
separate entity, and the form I see him in is the form my
mind projects into him.
I've also written prefaces for three volumes of the books
on Emmanual. Emmanual speaks through a woman called Pat
Roderghast and he is an absolutely delightful spook. I
know Pat very well and I know Emmanual quite well now. I
asked him what to tell people about dying and he said,
"tell them it's absolutely safe." What a superb
one-liner. He also said, "death is like taking off a
tight shoe." He's just like this friendly, wise
In the preface I say, I don't know whether this is
vertical schizophrenia or whether it's a separate entity,
and I don't really care. I'm experiencing it as a
separate entity and my criteria is whether I can use the
material, not whether it's real or not.
Rebecca: How do you act or feel differently when you are
in the presence of a dying person?
Ram Dass: Well, theoretically I don't act any differently
because we're all dying. Basically, the human relations
boil down to creating an environment in which another
person can manifest as they would manifest. That's what
love is. You're in love with the universe and you want it
to do what it needs to do. You're creating an environment
that is the least limiting.
So, my job isn't to have somebody die my philosophical or
metaphysical death, my job is to create a space of
listening and quietness and presence with no boundaries.
My job is not to use a denial of their experience out of
my fear as a way of distancing myself through being kind
and helpful or whatever, because that traps them in
There is one awareness in which some of it is dying and
some of it is visiting some of it that's dying. To me
then, the one awareness frees both of us immensely, and
it frees them of being busy dying. If they're ready to
let go of dying then it's really great fun. It's
woooooow! It's oooooooh!! (laughter) If they're busy
dying, it's none of my business. I'm not going to say,
"come on, you know you're not really dying," I
have no moral right to do that.
Rebecca: The ability to create that space in yourself
must take some practice though.
Ram Dass: What happens is, wherever there is desire,
there is clinging in you. Situations that awaken that
clinging are the ones that are really fruitful. Death is
certainly the most clinging situation that humans have to
So, I'm attached to working with dying people because
it's the closest I can get to one of my deepest
clingings. I can slowly watch my heart open and close,
and I can stay mindful in it. I see also how there is a
certain cosmic giggle about the whole thing, but that's
just so socially unacceptable - even to me.
David: Can you describe one of the most profound
experiences you've had working with a dying person?
Ram Dass: The most profound awakening I've had recently,
was two years ago, working with a woman who was dying of
AIDS. I just fell into love with her like the way I've
been talking about. That's what it is, it's being in love
with somebody, in the sense of no boundary and no model
of how they should be. I could open myself, and being
that open, you experience what they experience.
I watched how I stayed open, right until she couldn't
breathe any more and she was dying from asphyxiation. I
watched my awareness disengage itself. I couldn't die
with her. I couldn't love her through death, I could love
her to death.(laughter) That's an interesting moment for
me, to see where the automatic defense locks in and I get
pushed back into my separateness, because that's the
moment where I'm not with her.
Rebecca: How could you have gone further?
Ram Dass: If I were not caught, then whatever was
catching her would have been totally in her. I wouldn't
have been perpetuating it, so she could have let it go
I meet somebody and they think they're real. My job is
not to deny that reality, but to have a context in which
that is not the only reality. So I'm always here in case
they want to let go of that one. I don't demand that they
let go of it, but if they would like to let go of it -
I'm here. If you're a Christian you can speak about
focusing on the soul as well as the manifestation. You're
constantly saying, are you in there? What's it like being
you this time?
Rebecca: How do you help a person in their dying process?
Ram Dass: By working on yourself to keep unencumbered by
clingings of mind, so you stay in compassion. That's
independent of whether you give them water and plump
their pillows and hold them and all that stuff. The
question is, where do you do it from? That's more
We're not dealing with the issue of whether you do it, if
somebody is thirsty, you give them water, naturally. The
issue is how you do it. In order to not create suffering,
you can only work on yourself. That's the gift you give.
The process of working with somebody as they're dying is
an exercise on yourself to keep you in love and watching
when you fall out of love from moment to moment.
Rebecca: It must be a challenge to maintain that kind of
openness when the person dying is expressing bitterness
Ram Dass: There can be anything. There can be sweet
happiness that's phony, there can be pain and struggle -
but all you can do is create the space where they can do
what they need to do. They might come on with their whole
trip of this is terrible, but there's nothing they get
out of you. Sometimes they come on strong, and then they
see that nothing has happened in you.
I remember a woman coming to see me and telling me this
terribly sad story about her being a seamstress and
having a child and how her child is now forging checks.
And I listened very carefully and at the end I said,
"I hear you." That didn't satisfy her and she
went and told the whole story again. She was used to
using that story like the ancient mariner. And the second
time I said it, this smile came upon her face and she
said, "you know, I was a bit of a rascal at that age
too." She had come up for air.
Rebecca: So you offer someone another option to the
Ram Dass: Yes. It's available, but you don't try to get
them into the other option. The minute you try to change
somebody, you play into the unconscious paranoia that is
in everybody, and when they feel manipulated they push
against it and it isolates them even more.
Rebecca: What is your position on euthanasia?
Ram Dass: A human birth is an incredible vehicle for
working on yourself and you should milk it for as much as
you can get out of it. But if you've had enough and you
can't cut it, you should certainly have the
"choice" to end it, even though it's not really
your choice - your karma just ran out for that round.
I have nothing against that. You just go on from that
point instead of from another point. I can't see that
there's any rush - it's a circle. Where's everybody going
Rebecca: So you don't see some heavy karmic consequences
Ram Dass: No. If somebody asks me, "should I?"
I say, "well, I wouldn't." But I don't know, I
might if I got into a certain situation.
David: What do you believe happens to consciousness after
the death of the body?
Ram Dass: I think it's a function of the level of
evolution of the individual psychic DNA code, or
whatever. I think that if you have finished your work and
you're just awareness that happens to be in a body, when
the body ends it's like selling your Ford - it's no big
Then the question is, what of you is left after that? If
you're fully enlightened, nothing of you is left because
nothing was there before. If there's something before,
there will probably be something after, and it will
project onward. I can imagine beings that are so dense
and caught in life that when they die, there is no place
in awareness that they can conceive of the fact that
they're dead. The word conceive in this context is
strange because they have no brain, so it really raises
questions about who is thinking this. (laughter) But I
think that identifying the brain with thought is a
mistake, I think that the brain is a way of manifesting
the thought but I don't think that it is actually an
So, I suspect that some beings go unconscious, they go
into what Christians call purgatory. They go to sleep
during that process before they project into the next
form. Others I think go through and are aware they are
going through it, but are still caught. All the bardos in
the Tibetan Book of the Dead are about how to avoid
Those beings are awake enough for them to be
collaborators in the appreciation of the gestalt in which
their incarnations are flowing. They sort of see where
they're coming from and where they're going. They are all
part of the design of things. So, when you say, did you
choose to incarnate? At the level at which you are free,
you did choose. At the level at which you are not - you
And then there are beings who are so free that when they
go through they may still have separateness. They may
have taken the Bodhisatva vow which says, `I agree to not
give up separateness until everybody is free,' and
they're left with that thought. They don't have anything
else. Then the next incarnation will be out of the
intention to save all beings and not out of personal
karma. That one bit of personal karma is what keeps it
To me, since nothing happened anyway, it's all an
illusion - reincarnation and everything - but within the
relative reality in which that's real, I think it's quite
Rebecca: It's interesting how in Buddhism you learn about
the general definition of reincarnation and then as you
go up the lineage, this definition becomes increasingly
Ram Dass: Right. You're the Buddha already, you're only
in drag. And then you wake up and realize you've been had
by your own mind.
Rebecca: One of the things that comes up time and time
again in your writings is that when a person is involved
in service, they do a lot better when they can operate
from a position of full acceptance of the other's
condition, whether that person is a drug addict, a mass
murderer or a terminally ill patient or whatever, and not
operate from the desire to change the behavior or
conditions. Can you elaborate on this as many people
would say that the purpose of service is to change
certain behaviors and conditions that are perceived as
Ram Dass: The purpose of service is to relieve suffering.
Now the question is, what is the nature of suffering?
Maybe if the person is thirsty the purpose of service is
to give them a glass of water. God comes to the hungry in
the form of food.
Rebecca: What if they're dying of thirst and they say
they don't want a glass of water? Do you think that a
person is ever justified in assuming control of
Ram Dass: I think that if you're dealing with a very
young child where you are responsible for their
biological survival, then you have some grounds for
having a preference that is different from theirs. But if
you're deciding what is best for somebody else and you're
dealing with an adult consciousness - therein lies the
David: But you may still be relieving suffering though,
even if your efforts aren't being appreciated.
Rebecca: I had a lot of friends who were sent to mental
hospitals instead of universities. Most people would
think that's too bad but I think they came out with more
cylinders than many who went to university.
I don't know how it's going to come out. I see people
suffering in their dying so intensely. They've had big
egos all their life and that suffering and pain finally
wore them down until they just gave up. And at the moment
they give up, it's like a window opened and there they
are in their full spiritual splendor.
Now do I say that the suffering stunk? It was terrible
and I would have taken it away from them in a minute if I
could. My human heart doesn't want them to suffer, but
when I look at it I say, "boy, the game is more
interesting than I thought it was." That's why I
include suffering as part of the mystery.
You and I can only meet through roles. So, let's say you
come to me and I'm your therapist. You came to me to
change you, and my job is to relieve the suffering that
brought you there. Part of my job is for me to help you
see the forms of your pathology, but the deeper suffering
that I understand is your separateness, your isolation.
Therefore, what I can offer you is my being and my
presence. That's the real gift. You and I may come
together through the form of therapist and client, but we
may meet as just two beings who are dancing into love
through the form of those roles.
Somebody might ask me if they should go to therapy, and I
would say, "yes, but try to find a therapist who
doesn't think they're a therapist." If they think
they're a therapist, they have an agenda and they are
caught in their mind which is treating you as an object
to be manipulated for your own good.
Rebecca: You talk about how suffering can awaken us more
than pleasure can, but I'm wondering about ecstasy. The
ecstatic experience of God seems to be able to link up
with the compassionate acknowledgment of suffering in the
same way that suffering is able to lead us back to the
ecstatic experience. Is ecstasy as valid a path to God as
suffering is, in your view?
Ram Dass: I'd much rather use the ecstatic path. I'm no
fool! (laughter) I guess the thing is that ecstasy is
easy for the ego to socialize in and protect itself.
Suffering has an effect kind of like dripping water on
stone. It eats your ego away.
Suffering confronts you with where you are holding. It
shows you your stash; the attachments which you have been
hiding from yourself. If you have no attachment then you
wouldn't be suffering. When you are suffering, you say,
why am I suffering? I'm suffering because I'm holding
onto a model of how it should be other than the way it
Pain is a strong stimulus and what model you have of what
pain is has a lot to do with how you cope with it, and
whether or not you can open to it being a part of you
rather than trying to isolate it. One of the things with
pain is that you tend to try to make it separate from
The art is to be mindful of it and yet fully with it.
It's the pushing against something that gets you into
trouble: pushing against aging, pushing against the
weather. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be an
activist and push against things. It doesn't mean that
you don't have opinions, it means that you're not
attached to your opinions. As Don Juan said, you huff and
puff and make believe it's real, even though you know it
Rebecca: How then do you think we can avoid the kind of
polarization that we see in the abortion issue for
example, where both sides seem beyond the point of being
able to communicate with one another.
Ram Dass: If I were in a position to have some say, I
would bring some of the leaders from each group together
for a retreat where I would invite them just to listen to
each other. You not only have to hear the other person,
but they have to feel that they have been heard. If I
feel you've heard me, then you and I can start a
dialogue, but if I don't feel that you've heard me, then
I'm in opposition to you.
The question is, how do we create a meta-identity? We all
think life is beautiful, we all think that life is
sacred, but we also think that freedom from suffering is
sacred. It's not sacred versus profane. It's not people
of ill-will on either side. Everyone is trying to be as
true to the light as they can.
Engaging everybody in the meta-game is a tricky one. You
want to help them break their identification with their
position. They're not giving up their position, but their
primary identification can shift from being an
abortionist or an anti-abortionist, to being a human
being who has an opinion about abortion. That's a
different place. Then everyone can sit around and say,
what do we do about this? If everybody lays their cards
on the table, the game is possible.
Rebecca: So you're talking about developing a respect
towards the other, even if that other doesn't agree with
Ram Dass: Yeah. It's like in politics. Everybody is using
all of the external symbols of the fact that they're
doing that, respecting the other and trying to understand
the other, but they're not doing it. All alignment has
been pre-empted in the service of third chakra ego power.
It's inevitable, I guess.
Rebecca: You talk about learning to use all life
experiences, whether good or bad as grist for the mill
and potential for spiritual growth. And I think about the
people in Rwanda and what they're going through; the
disease and the famine and the apparent meaninglessness
of it all, and I wonder what kind of spiritual growth
they are achieving or have even the possibility of
achieving from that.
Ram Dass: (long pause) That's the mystery. That's the
mystery of suffering. If you could stand back enough to
see the whole trip it might look quite different. Say you
have freeze-frame photography and my arm is moving from
pointing downwards to straight up in the air. If the
middle frames are missing, then you see one situation and
then another, with no apparant connection between them.
You're seeing the horror which is Rwanda, but you're
missing out on witnessing the beauty.
I would sit in front of Maharaji and I felt like he had a
deck of cards of all my reincarnations. I could sense
that he saw my incarnations in a context that I couldn't
see. It all seemed terribly real to me. If you look back
at the events of your life, you'll see that when you were
in them, you didn't see the context. I look back at my
miserable times and realize how profoundly that helped me
in where I am now.
Rebecca: So, if you see suffering in the context of a
continuum then it becomes easier to understand.
Ram Dass: It all has to do with your time-frame. For the
people in Rwanda, it's hell. None of this doesn't mean
that you don't do what you can to relieve the suffering.
You do what your heart calls you to do. Saying that it's
all karma, isn't a justification for non-action. That is
a confusion of levels of consciousness. On the level of
the human heart, you do what you can to relieve another's
suffering. On another level, it's all karma.
Rebecca: How do you move within your meditation space so
that you stop getting trapped in the, now I'm meditating,
now I'm not syndrome, so the high can keep leaking into
Ram Dass: You give up not meditating. It's called
meditation action. There's no way out of it. Meditation
means to be constanty extricating yourself from the
clinging of mind.
Rebecca: So, it becomes part of the fabric of your life,
rather than another thing on your list to do like the
laundry or something?
Ram Dass: That's right. People ask me, how much
meditation practice do you do? Sometimes I say none, and
they give me a worried look,(laughter) but the other
answer is, all the time! I don't do anything else but
David: What are some of the current projects that you are
Ram Dass: There are several on the burner. I've just
accepted a contract on a book on aging which will allow
me to take about two years off to write. I'm hoping to
understand the dysfunctional mythology around aging;
aesthetically, cross-culturally and spiritually.
I'm also on the board of a group called Social Venturing
Network - exploring the relationship between spirit and
business. Out of that core group, we've started three
organizations in the past year. We've started Businesses
for Social Responsibility, we started Students for
Responsible Business and we've started a European SVN. We
have two conferences a year and it has about 500 people
involved, including Ben and Jerry's and The Body Shop.
Working with dying people is dealing with my issues about
death and working with business people is dealing with my
issues about money and power.
I've been doing major fundraising work for SEVA for
fifteen years which has been involved in relieving
blindness in India and Nepal. I have one project in South
India. The hospital have been given one and a quarter
millions dollars by Lions International to set up an
international community opthamology institute. It's to
train people to carry opthamology programs into Indonesia
and Africa. But I'm phasing down a lot of the service
stuff because I really don't think I can carry it all at
I have to listen - we all have to - to hear how we honor
all of the different levels of the games we are in. I'm a
member of a family, I'm a member of a nation-state, I'm a
member of the community, I have a sexual identity, I have
an age identity, a religious identity. It's important to
feel how your incarnation takes form through these
identities, and to ask yourself, what does it mean to
live with integrity within each of those systems?
That's something that I have had to learn because I used
to be so busy seeing the spiritual journey as something
that you did by yourself.
Rebecca: You've said that everyone should try and work
from the edges of their experience. What did you mean by
Ram Dass: As chaos increases - and there's a lot of
inertia in the system that seems to suggest that is the
direction we're going in - it behooves us to prepare
ourselves to ride the changes. If, in the face of
uncertainty, people are busy holding onto something, the
fear increases, then the contraction increases, and
prejudice increases. The question is, what are you adding
to the system to shift the balance? What you're adding is
yourself, and what yourself has to be is somebody who can
handle uncertainty and chaos without contracting.
I've gotten over the feeling of being somebody special.
You've come with a camera and tape-recorders, but that's
your trip, it's not mine. I really experience the web of
inter-connectedness of all beings. It's like C.S Lewis'
line, you don't see the center because it's all center.
Rebecca: There are so many people who spend all their
time dreaming about being somebody special.
Ram Dass: And the horror is to see people who thought
that that would be something and then got it. Then you
see them trying to hold onto it, even though they know
it's empty. I've been in a hall with thousands of people
applauding and bringing flowers and loving me, and then
gone to the hotel alone, feeling the absolute
wretchedness of it all.
David: Could you sum up the basic message of your life?
Ram Dass: (long pause) I would say that the thrust of my
life has been initially about getting free, and then
realizing that my freedom is not independent of everybody
else. Then I am arriving at that circle where one works
on oneself as a gift to other people so that one doesn't
create more suffering. I help people as a work on myself
and I work on myself to help people.
I've been perfecting that circle for thirty years. It's
karma yoga. It's the Bodhisattva vow. My life is about
applied dharma. On a socio-political level - I'm a
survivor. Once that faith and that connection and that
emptiness is strong enough, then I experience looking
around for the fields I can play in.
I work with AIDS, with business, with government, with
teenagers, with people dying of cancer, with blindness.
It doesn't matter, because your agenda is always the
same. Do what you can on this plane to relieve suffering
by constantly working on yourself to be an instrument for
the cessation of suffering. To me, that's what the
emerging game is all about.
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